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Sacraments: Lord’s Supper

Is it an altar or a table?

The Presbyterian/Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper is one of thanksgiving and remembrance for the self-offering of Jesus Christ once and for all time on a cross in Jerusalem. Christ’s perfect sacrifice of love and service is not re-enacted or reactualized at the Lord’s Supper; rather, in the joyful feast of eucharistic celebration, we offer our praise and thanksgiving to God for this amazing gift. Furthermore, the sacrament that Christ instituted for the remembrance of him takes the form of a simple meal — a sharing of bread and wine. Therefore, it is Presbyterian practice to refer to the Lord’s table rather than an altar.

To be sure, the memorial (or anamnesis) of Christ’s death and resurrection is an integral part of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. This is one of several theological themes implicit in the eucharistic meal. Others include: thanksgiving to God for the gifts and goodness of creation, prayer for the fruitful reception of the sacrament through the Holy Spirit, the communion of the faithful in the presence of Christ and the anticipation or foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God. Around the symbol of the “table” there is room for this rich feast of sacramental meaning.

Is it the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist or Holy Communion?

Each of these terms may be appropriately applied to the church’s ancient practice of sharing bread and wine. However, each term highlights a different facet of the meaning of the feast. The Lord’s Supper, particularly prominent in Presbyterian/Reformed tradition, emphasizes Christ’s institution of the sacrament, and connects the meal with its celebration on the Lord’s Day (Sunday). Eucharist, from a Greek word meaning “to give thanks,” emphasizes the essential nature of the sacrament as an offering of thanksgiving for the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ; this term tends to have more currency in ecumenical and Roman Catholic discussion. Holy Communion originally referred to a specific part of the eucharistic liturgy — the sharing of bread and wine — and a particular aspect of its theological meaning — the fellowship of the Body of Christ; over time and in some circles, however, this term has come to stand in for the sacrament as a whole.

What is the proper method for the distribution of the elements in communion?

The Directory for Worship suggests that “The elements are distributed in the manner most suitable to the particular occasion. The people may gather about the Table to receive the bread and the cup; they may come to those serving to receive the elements; or those serving may distribute the elements to them where they are.

The bread may be broken from that on the Table and placed in the people’s hands; people may break off a portion from the broken loaf or other bread offered for distribution; or they may receive pieces of bread prepared for distribution. A common cup may be offered to all who wish to partake of it; several cups may be offered and shared; or individual cups may be prepared for distribution. Rather than drink from a common cup, communicants may dip the broken bread into the cup.

The bread and the cup may be served by ordained officers of the church, or by other church members on invitation of the session or authorizing governing body. The serving of the elements may be extended, by two or more ordained officers of the church, to those isolated from the community’s worship, provided (1) the elements are to be served following worship on the same calendar day, or as soon thereafter as practically feasible, as a direct extension of the serving of the gathered congregation, to church members who have accepted the church’s invitation to receive the Sacrament; (2) care is taken in the serving to ensure that the unity of Word and Sacrament is maintained, by the reading of Scripture and the offering of prayers; and (3) those serving have been instructed by the session or authorized governing body in the theological and pastoral foundations of this ministry and in the liturgical resources for it.

While the bread and the cup are being shared, the people may sing psalms, hymns, spirituals or other appropriate songs; the choir may sing anthems or other appropriate musical offerings; instrumental music suitable to the occasion may be played; appropriate passages of Scripture may be read; or people may pray in silence” (W-3.3616­ – W.3.3617).

What is the Great Thanksgiving?

The Great Thanksgiving (or Eucharistic Prayer) is the prayer over which the minister of Word and Sacrament presides at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. This tradition of prayer has been passed down (with variations) through centuries of Christian worship; its origins are thought to be in the third century.

The typical structure of the Great Thanksgiving consists of the following elements:

  1. Dialogue (“The Lord be with you,” “Lift up your hearts”)
  2. Preface (thanksgiving to God for creation and the history of salvation; this section of the prayer often varies according to the liturgical season)
  3. Sanctus and Benedictus (said or sung by the congregation: “Holy, holy, holy,” “Blessed is he”)
  4. Post-Sanctus (continued thanksgiving for the life and ministry of Jesus Christ)
  5. Words of Institution (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, e.g.; in Presbyterian practice, these words are often said at the Breaking of the Bread)
  6. Anamnesis/Oblation (remembrance of Christ and offering of praise and thanksgiving)
  7. Memorial Acclamation (said or sung by the congregation: “Christ has died,” e.g.)
  8. Epiclesis (prayer for the Holy Spirit)
  9. Intercessions (prayer for the church and world)
  10. Doxology (praise to the Triune God)
  11. Amen (said or sung by the congregation)

This is followed by the Lord’s Prayer.

Similarly, the Directory for Worship describes the Eucharistic Prayer as follows: “The one presiding is to lead the people in the prayer, (a) thanking God for creation and providence, for covenant history, and for seasonal blessings, with an acclamation of praise; (b) remembering God’s acts of salvation in Jesus Christ: his birth, life, death, resurrection, and promise of coming, and institution of the Supper (if not otherwise spoken), together with an acclamation of faith; (c) calling upon the Holy Spirit to draw the people into the presence of the risen Christ so that they (1) may be fed, (2) may be joined in the communion of saints to all God’s people and to the risen Christ, and (3) may be sent to serve as faithful disciples; followed by an ascription of praise to the triune God, and (d) the Lord’s Prayer.

“The one presiding is to take the bread and break it in the view of the people. If the words of institution have not previously been spoken as part of the invitation or in the communion prayer, I Cor. 11:23, 24 shall be used at this time. Having filled the cup, the one presiding is to present it in the view of the people. If the words of institution have not previously been spoken as part of the invitation or in the communion prayer, I Cor. 11:25, 26 shall be used at this time” (W-3.3613—W-3.3615).

How should we dispose of the communion elements?

The Directory for Worship advises ”When the service is ended, the communion elements shall be removed from the Table and used or disposed of in a manner which is approved by the session, and which is consistent with the Reformed understanding of the Sacrament and the principles of good stewardship” (W-3.3619).

What kind of communion bread should we use?

Sacramental matter matters! As the Directory for Worship says: “Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action” (W-1.3033). If this is true, we should make every effort to ensure that they communicate the fullness, wholeness and goodness of God’s grace in Christ.

The communion bread should convey fullness — in other words, it should be big enough to hint at the abundance of God’s love, and to suggest that it can satisfy the hunger of body and spirit. After all, Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). At the same time, the loaf should be modest enough that this precious food is not wasted. Ideally, unless provision has been made to extend the service of communion to the homebound, the whole loaf is consumed by the people of God worship, or (reverently) immediately afterward.

The bread should be whole, unbroken at the start of the eucharistic prayer. The wholeness of the bread is a sign of the unity of the church, and the wholeness (or “shalom”) that is ours in the body of Christ. As Paul wrote, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Scoring the bread so that it breaks easily may seem more convenient, but it undercuts the vivid symbolism of the broken body, with all the struggle and effort that entails. It is better to choose bread that is soft enough that it may be readily torn at the appropriate time. Some churches use precut cubes of bread or wafers for sanitary reasons, so that many fingers aren’t pulling at the loaf. It is better to have designated servers — with well-washed hands — break off pieces of bread and hand them to those who are receiving the sacrament. This practice helps to symbolize that, in the Lord’s Supper, we don’t “help ourselves,” but are fed by Christ, and thereby nourished to go forth and serve others.

The taste or goodness of the bread matters too! The psalmist invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Traditionally, wheat bread has been used among Western Christians; however, simple bread made from maize, rice or barley would be perfectly appropriate in other cultural contexts. Whatever the case, the communion bread ought to be delicious, appetizing, inviting, even slightly sweet (as with honey wheat bread). Still, the bread should remain simple enough that it does not distort or confuse the primary symbolism of bread as Christ’s body, basic nourishment for Christian life. Excessive seasoning with sugar, nuts, raisins or herbs should be avoided.

Food allergies may complicate matters. In settings where certain worshipers are allergic to wheat, gluten-free bread may be used so that all may participate in the sacrament and have access to the signs of God’s grace. In this situation, a gluten-free loaf should be selected that satisfies the criteria above (fullness, wholeness and goodness), so that the symbol of the common loaf is preserved. If this is not possible, an alternative bread may be provided discreetly at the table. By the same token, if a congregation (by decision of the session) elects to use wine instead of grape juice, non-alcoholic wine should be used so that those who do not drink alcohol (including children) may participate freely and equally. Alternatively, a second cup with grape juice may be used, but as with the bread, this has the unfortunate effect of fracturing the unity of the common cup.

The most important matter is this: use bread! Jesus compared himself to the common food of the people of the world, the basic staple of human life, because that is what he is — the bread of heaven given for all, the basic necessity of eternal and abundant life. And if someone forgets to procure appropriate bread, delay the service or postpone the celebration of the sacrament. So-called “pantomime communion” makes worshipers feel that they are participating in a charade, and causes them to doubt the reality of Christ’s presence and power.

Won’t more frequent celebrations of the Lord’s Supper make our worship services longer?

Not necessarily. The weekly Wednesday Eucharist service at the Presbyterian Center, which includes a full order of worship modeled on the Service for the Lord’s Day, generally takes place within a thirty-minute time period. A Presbyterian pastor recently reported attending a worship workshop in which the same service was celebrated twice: first in an hour, and the second time in half an hour, with only minor adjustments to the content of the liturgy.

Celebrating the Lord’s Supper more frequently will require that pastors and other worship leaders think carefully and critically about their current practices of worship, trimming unnecessary or excessively long aspects of the service. This can be a constructive and helpful exercise however, and will likely lead to a leaner, stronger, more coherent and more worshipful experience for all involved.

Whether considering more frequent celebrations of the Eucharist or not, congregations would be advised to:

  • streamline announcements, printing such information in the bulletin or distributing it through an electronic newsletter
  • avoid overly lengthy instructions or explanations during worship by planning such introductions in advance, or, wherever possible, by simply allowing the symbols and actions of the liturgy to speak for themselves
  • construct sermons in such a way that they attend directly to the Scriptures at hand and allow those texts to speak to the congregation in fresh and immediate ways,
  • avoiding lengthy “exegetical reports,” on the one hand, and on the other, merely entertaining anecdotes that don’t proclaim the gospel
  • replace long and rambling “pastoral prayers” with a short set of simple and direct petitions (these may still be somewhat spontaneous, as desired, but in any case should be well planned)
  • give elders or other communion servers clear instructions about the distribution of the elements, being sure that there are enough servers to minister to the congregation in a timely way
  • see that all musical selections serve a specific purpose in the order of worship, and are not included only to feature the talents of the musicians.

Having considered all these things, if the service still runs a bit longer than usual with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, don’t sweat it. After all — giving thanks to God for the ancient and ongoing story of our salvation; remembering the events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; praying for the Spirit’s transforming power in the church and in our world; eating and drinking together in the presence of Christ and in joyful anticipation of his coming realm — these things are worth a few extra minutes of our time.

What items belong on the communion table?

It is common in many Presbyterian congregations to find a brass standing cross and a pair of candles on the Lord’s Table. Some churches will include a large Bible, sometimes on a book stand. Occasionally one even sees arrangements of flowers and other items. The cross, the light, and the Bible are central symbols of the Christian faith (not so for flowers, as beautiful and meaningful as they may be). However, as these objects accumulate they can begin to crowd out and obscure the primary meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Table — a place for a meal — a place for eating and drinking with the risen Christ, in thanksgiving for the gifts of God and in anticipation of that great feast to come in the realm of heaven.

The 2006 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) sacrament study Invitation to Christ makes this recommendation: “Set cup and plate on the Lord’s Table on every Lord’s Day.” The paten and chalice help us to remember the primary function of the Lord’s Table, and can serve to whet our appetite for the spiritual nourishment we receive from Christ in the Lord’s Supper — even on Sundays when the sacrament is not celebrated. Elaborating on this point, the authors of Invitation to Christ advise: “Be sensitive to what the presence of other things on the Lord’s Table says about the meaning of the meal.”

An analogy might be helpful: when the dining room table in your house becomes cluttered with other objects, no matter how important (tax forms, books, computers, children’s toys) it’s a good sign that you’re neglecting the primary purpose of that table: gathering together for regular nourishment. Many Presbyterians have come to recognize the presence of other items on the Lord’s Table as indicative or symptomatic of the neglect of the Lord’s Supper in our regular patterns of worship.

A more practical point is this: having a standing cross and candles on the communion table can make it quite awkward — even dangerous — to lead appropriate parts of worship from behind the table (another recommendation of Invitation to Christ). Many pastors can relate to the problem of nearly lighting their sleeves on fire while trying to reach across the table (or around a standing cross) for the bread and cup.

Consider finding an alternate location for the standing cross and candles — on a high ledge or table at the front of the chancel, perhaps. You might also supplement or replace the standing cross with a processional cross, symbolizing the presence of the risen Christ who leads us in our worship and leads us out to serve. Using a paschal candle from Easter to Pentecost provides another way to symbolize the light of Christ. Instead of having a “display Bible” on the table, keep the book of the Scriptures on a lectern where it may be used in worship. This will help worshipers to understand that the Bible is a vital source of truth and guide for living, not a historical artifact.